Jim Antal, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland. 2018. 221 pp. $25.00. ISBN: 9781538110690.
The August sky was an eerie brownish-orange as the morning news warned Edmontonians not to exert themselves outside. Thick smoke smelling of charred forests blanketed the city, and air quality was so poor that even healthy young people stayed indoors. On a family vacation, we drove through heavy smoke in Southern British Columbia, never able to see the mountains as the province experienced a second year of record-breaking forest fires. It was a fitting time to read Climate Church, Climate World, to ponder the effects of human action on the environment, and to consider the roles and responsibilities of the church in response to environmental issues.
As an Albertan, I find myself stuck between “the sides” in a divisive discourse about pipelines, the environment, and the economy. It is easiest to avoid the discussion entirely because it is explosive and impossible to engage without encountering hard feelings and inadequately informed opinions on all sides. On one hand, I have great respect for the many conscientious and generous people I know who earn a living through the oil industry. I worry about the increasingly dangerous “overland pipeline” the railway has become, and I am anxious about the economy should change happen too abruptly. On the other hand, I resonate strongly with the imperative of environmental protection, and I want a system that does not exploit nonrenewable resources. As a child of the Creator, my faith life must be one of caring for all people and all creation. My church must be a voice for this caring. The church, however, struggles with its own cacophony of voices and opinions and is likewise stuck between sides, unable to have open and healthy discussion on the issues and responsibilities we face with climate change. Perhaps the church and the environment are both at a crucial crossroads. There is opportunity for positive change as well as the possibility of catastrophe.
Antal’s book offers a well-written and well-supported encouragement for individual and communal engagement with the issue of climate change in ways that could lead to positive change. Many of the practical frustrations I hear in Alberta are raised clearly and helpfully in this book’s pages. One of these, the argument that our necessary use of fuel renders protesting the oil industry hypocritical, is gently and effectively addressed. Quoting an example of how slave owners were not suddenly hypocrites when they joined the abolition movement, Antal points out that “people enmeshed in a flawed system are not exempt from the struggle to transform that system” (70). He encourages confession of complicity along with active engagement of the theological, social, economic, and spiritual work that spurs transformation.
The needed transformation feels overwhelming, another common excuse for inaction that I hear (and viscerally share) among Christians. Antal, however, argues that faith communities have a moral imperative to repurpose themselves for this transformation, because it is so important that it cannot be ignored. Instead of being relegated to just another optional ideology or issue for congregations, climate change is the “umbrella issue” under which all others fit. Antal writes, “If the work of the church is to make God’s love and justice real, and since climate change amplifies every other social justice issue, it falls to the church to create the conditions in which people can face the reality of climate change and respond to God’s call to take action to protect God’s gift of creation” (123). He makes a strong case for preachers and churches to engage hopefully and consistently in the issues of climate change in every aspect of church life and work: “We need to accept that we are not called to be a church for ourselves. We are called to be a church for others” (135).
This umbrella perspective is helpful. When I consider even a few of the issues my home church, and others like it, have faced in the last number of years—“greening” our buildings, charitable relief work, responding to disasters, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and our response, and learning to communicate across differing opinions—it is quite clear how these can all fit under the umbrella. Repurposing the church to be less about individuals and more about communal salvation is a faithful and hope-filled move into our shared future. Antal writes, “A repurposed church that explicitly values continuity of creation could declare our moral interdependence with our billions of neighbors the world over as well as our countless yet-to-be-born neighbors” (74).
What I appreciate most about Antal’s book is the practicality of his reasoning and the insistent conviction that the church is a meaningful agent of change. His practical suggestions face the uncomfortable issues of climate change head on, dismantling apathy without inflicting unnecessary guilt. While I am energized by his belief in the voice of the church and the examples of how this voice is crucial to social change, a needed critique of the church is missing; the rise of populist religion and an oft-repeated history of being resistant to needed social changes is a huge and difficult matter right now. While the church is a catalyst for change, it can also be a formidable obstacle to it, rationalizing and interpreting scripture to meet its own desires.
Climate Church, Climate World is thought-provoking, hopeful, and practical. I would love to see this book as “urgent required reading” for church leaders. I wonder what might happen within a denomination that takes this on as a study? Could a repurposed and revitalized church emerge? With discussion questions concluding each chapter, the book is also an accessible and engaging focus for book clubs and Bible study groups and is sure to inspire passionate, helpful engagement with beliefs, issues, and the practice of faith as we long for the return of blue skies and a smoke-free future.
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld lives in Edmonton, Alberta, and works for Mennonite Central Committee and Canadian Mennonite Magazine. She attends First Mennonite Church in Edmonton.